Any book that has the staying power that this title has had will have merit. Published nearly three hundred years ago (in 1721), Persian Letters by Montesquieu is an epistolary novel that traces the fictional correspondence between two eighteenth-century Persians and their countrymen as they travel through the occidental world for the first time, eventually settling in Paris for a decade during the remaining years of Louie XIV's reign. The book illustrates what we would now call today culture shock for the two main characters as they try to make sense of their new surroundings and the colorful people that enliven their day-to-day soirées and sojourns into European life at the onset of the Enlightenment.
This compellation has more than a few witticisms and biting criticisms of the times. Reading it today, three-hundred years later, it is obvious that Montesquieu used the fictional characters as a cover for his own criticisms. Though which critiques actually parallel his thoughts is open to question, this ambiguity, I think, actually making the piece more enjoyable to read. I cannot verify the accurateness of Montesquieu's portrayal of these Persians--would they have really have reacted the way they had?--but a quick glance at the introduction to any modern reprinting of the text will tell you that Montesquieu used the best available resources at the time to capture what they would have likely reacted. Sometimes, you have to wonder though if he is working off imaginative stereotypes more than anything. The character development of the Persians is slight and the plot that Montesquieu throws us is light until the last few letters when events seem to pick up and then rush towards an interesting finale. However, I think it is better to judge the book on its playful musings and witticisms. I can imagine that much of what this Frenchman wrote would have been shocking, maybe even scandalous at the time.
The most entertaining features of the book come from the main Persian's communiqué with his seraglio back home. His many wives under lock and key in his desert harem, their hinted-at misadventures in lesbianism and infidelity, and the dictatorial African eunuchs who relentlessly keep watch over them--all of that fun stuff kept the book moving forward, and, consequentially, was my favorite part as well.
Another entertaining element to the piece was, of course, Montesquieu's musings on everything from government, virtue, law, morality, taxation, metrology to religion, particularly the Catholic Church. The best quotes from the book come from his thoughts on religion. One of my favorites:
"I believe in the immortality of the soul periodically. My opinions depend entirely on my physical condition. According to whether I have greater or less vitality, or my digestion is functioning well or badly...I know how to prevent religion from disturbing me when I am well, but I allow it to console me when I am ill."
Speaking of quotes, that is one thing that I feel I ought to warn against. I imagine that I am not the only one who will be reading this text in anticipation of Montesquieu's treatise The Spirit of the Laws. I found myself enjoying the book much more when I read it as literature and not when I was hunting for witty quotes to be used later on for the inevitable research paper I will have to write for my political theory class.
I think it is best to compare the novel to something from its own era, and the person's writing that first comes to mind to someone who is largely ignorant of that time period in French literature is, naturally enough, Voltaire. Like me, you will have probably have read Voltaire before tackling Montesquieu, which there is good reason for since I believe that Voltaire is much more readable than Montesquieu. If we compare Candide to Persian Letters, Candide comes out the winner easily: stylistically, for it imaginativeness, and hilarity. That said, I did enjoy the Persian Letters and recommend it for anyone who wants an entertaining reflection on early eighteenth-century France.